Isuzu’s new KB driven in SA

14 March, 2013 | by Lance Branquinho

Despite what Toyota and Ford say there is only one real bakkie company – and that is Isuzu.

The Japanese diesel engine specialist (they produce more compression ignition engines per year than anybody else) only produces bakkies and trucks. It suspended its passenger car operation years ago. Consequently, Isuzu engineers and research/development resources are solely focussed on bakkies. It’s why South Africans, a nation of unrepentant bakkie people, like Isuzus.

An issue with Isuzu’s singular bakkie focus is that the company often forgets it has customers waiting. And waiting. And waiting. The fifth generation KB was introduced in 2004 – and is only being usurped by the sixth-generation now. That’s nearly a decade, and perhaps more importantly, a decade in which Nissan’s added Navara, Ford its revolutionarily improved Ranger and VW the Amarok.

NEW DESIGN, BETTER BIG-HITTING D-TEQ

Worth the wait, then? Well, the look is very much Euro-NCAP pedestrian crash safety dictated. So we’ll forgive designers for that ornate, rather fussy, grille. As with all previous generations, despite having grown dimensionally, KB manages to appear quite a touch smaller than Hilux, Amarok, Ranger and Navara.

Engines? Well, the trusty 2.5 turbodiesels are carried over (in 58kW/170Nm and 85kW/280Nm trim)  whilst the headline 3-litre D-TEQ gains 10kW and 20Nm thanks to some ECU trickery and efficiency refinements to register 130kW/380Nm; outputs very much class competitive if not outright class leading. Perhaps more importantly: Isuzu claims that its 3-litre turbodiesel is more economical than either Toyota’s D-4D or Nissan’s Navara DCi. And those are not the only best-in-class claims for new KB…

BRAGGING RIGHTS?

Isuzu’s worked with local towing experts to develop a KB-specific tow-bar enabling the 300 D-TEQ derivatives to haul 3.5t. Which is a lot. A lot more than Hilux, for instance, is specified to do. How many customers will have something in the 3.5t range to tow is debateable (doubtful), but suffice to say: new KB will hardly struggle to tow your boat to Harties or Ballito.

All models (single, extended and double-cab) boast payload capacities in excess of 1t too, which should be quite a boon for the extended cab (1180kg) and double-cab (1080kg) owners with a jungle of garden refuse to get rid of over weekends.

Inside the hangdown section is carried-over from Chevrolet’s Trailblazer, whilst instrumentation and switchgear is thankfully not: being of Isuzu’s own design. It’s neat, simple, functional – essentially bakkie-like, which is what you would expect.

The only gripe being that the fascia embedded USB port is of the micro-USB variety, which means you’ll need to connect a cable with standard USB portage attached (it comes with KB) to charge most devices. With a cable dangling down the centre of the fascia, resting on the transmission’s shift-gate cover material, shifts into first, third and fifth are a potential entanglement. Besides that, the cabin’s commendably contemporary (by new-wave bakkie standards) and in the double-cab, there’s proper legroom on the rear bench even if you are 1.8m or taller.

GRAVEL ROAD MASTER – REMASTERED

So it’s new. With an improved 3-litre turbodiesel engine. But what you’re really interested to know is how it drives, right?

Fifth-generation KB was oft, and not without objective merit, championed as the best dirt-road high-speed cruising bakkie. Corrugations, uneven surfaces; if it was a treacherous gravely road, you could hustle a KB at speed without having the figurative grim reaper along for the ride on the back of the bakkie.

Thanks in no small part to South Africa’s eminence as a global bakkie market, Isuzu Japan allowed a commendable amount of input during new KB’s design from local engineers. Wendle Robert’s team in Port Elizabeth managed to fine tune the cooling and air filtration systems to cope with harsh African conditions and more importantly: they spent an inordinate amount of time fettling the suspension. Small bump compliance, very difficult to achieve with an unladen, leaf-sprung rear suspension bakkie, was the goal. Was it achieved?

We tested new KB on the badly graded dirt roads around Hoedspruit. And in a muddy 4×4 quarry bordering the Kruger Park. Oh, and they allowed us some gymkhana type hooliganism on a private air-strip too.

Impressions? Well, although new KB is of configuration similar to all its rivals (independent front, leaf-sprung rear suspension) it’s the details that matter. KB’s front suspension features a coil-over strut set-up, which has been impeccably calibrated. Its rear leaf springs were also purposefully elongated, to counter dirt-road surface reverberations through the suspension at speed. Combined, the engineering package is beautifully resolved. Steering is accurate and KB’s ability to absorb reverberation from corrugated dirt-road surfaces at speed, without starting to float off-line, is quite possibly class-leading.

Conversely, it’s not lost any off-road ability. We climbed steep quarry embankments with it, and front wheel traction was fine, whilst 235mm of ground clearance proved ample and the new turn-dial transfer case engagement was painless.

GOOD, BUT THERE IS AN ISSUE

In summary it’s been a (very) long time coming, but new KB is a terrifically good bakkie. One would expect that seeing as this is all Isuzu actually does.

The cabin is comfy, the carrying-capacities class-leading and the additional urge extracted from an evolved version of Isuzu’s 3-litre D-TEQ turbodiesel makes for a worthy counter to those head-line engines offered by rivals such as Navara and Ranger.

The KB’s unique selling point, though, is its dynamic driving balance. In a country where bakkies do tremendous distances on gravel roads – testing, dangerous gravel roads – KB’s suspension kinematics and the manner in which it tracks true at speed over even the most haphazardly shaped grondpad is a godsend.

Despite this, there is a rather peculiar irony in new KB’s excellent gravel-road driving dynamics: they are unsupported by the additional safety net of an electronic stability programme. Ford Ranger, Nissan Navara and VW’s Amarok are all equipped with ESP intervention systems, of which the VW and Ford have off-road terrain sensitive settings too. Expect ESP to enter the KB range during its mid-life product cycle facelift.

That said, new KB has been well worth the wait: it’s a typically robust bakkie product by the company which specialises in bakkies like no other.

Pick of the range? Probably the extended cab KB 300 D-TEQ LX 4X4 at R412 300, the double cab retails for R464 400.

     

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